Anenecuilco, Mexico – One hundred years after the death of one of Mexico’s greatest folk heroes, the descendants of Emiliano Zapata have picked up the legendary peasant revolution where their illustrious ancestor left off.
Enraged by what they perceive as “corruption and impunity at all levels of government,” the grandsons of the legendary Mexican revolutionary are uniting forces across Mexico in the hope of challenging the federal government.
“Today we are living with a powerful minority imposing unjust laws upon a feudalized population,” Jorge Zapata told Fox News Latino in the family’s hometown of Anenecuilco, south of Mexico City. “It’s almost exactly what my grandfather saw and rebelled against a century ago.”
“When my grandfather saw the wealthy abuse their power over the poor, he rose up and took decisive action,” Zapata said. “We’re going to make history repeat itself.”
The leader of a peasant uprising that engulfed southern Mexico during its 1910 revolution, Emiliano Zapata carried out a guerrilla campaign against the hacendados (landowning descendants of Spanish colonialists) in the highlands of his home state of Morelos.
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Emiliano Zapata, 1879–1919. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Starting with a band of just 24 men, Zapata’s message of “Better to die on my feet than to live on my knees,” gained him an army of more than 50,000 men and an enduring legacy of communities owning shared land that is enshrined in Mexico’s constitution.
Sporting a wide-brimmed sombrero, an enormous moustache and a thousand-yard stare, he remains a symbol of Mexican pride, community and social justice. In the 1990s, guerilla fighters in the state of Chiapas took up the Zapatista banner, and even today Zapata's name is a byword for anti-government groups across the south, particularly in sierra-dwelling indigenous communities that feel abandoned by the federal government.
Those are the communities Emiliano Zapata’s grandsons say they will mobilize to take the battle to Mexico’s powerbrokers.
“We don’t want armed fight at the moment," said Jorge Zapata, who alongside his cousins Galdino and Benjamin, forms the head council of the 21st-century Zapatista movement. "But we certainly aren’t ruling it out."
“It’s a great pride to be a Zapata,” 78-year-old Galdino told FNL, “but it also means an obligation to fight for social justice and underprivileged Mexicans everywhere.”
All three men go to great pains to imitate their famous grandfather – dressing in the "ranchero" style, sporting large sombreros, shouting in gruff voices and rough manners and, of course, cultivating enormous moustaches.
“It’s our brand trademark,” says Benjamin, who takes great pains to wax his impressive whiskers every morning. “I can’t imagine being a proud Zapata without the facial hair – how else would we get recognized?”
The family is renowned in Anenecuilco, where a large golden statue of their grandfather dominates the central square, although the cousins travel throughout Mexico to attend demonstrations and rally protestors to their cause.
“We have connections throughout the south of Mexico, everywhere where the memory of our grandfather is alive,” says Jorge, who says he has been frustrated by the bureaucracy involved in legal action. “In Chiapas, Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán – when the time comes we will take back what is ours.”
“The land belongs to those who work it,” he said, quoting his grandfather. “I will die a slave to my principles – not a slave to men.”
Yet before the overthrow of the federal government can take place, the Zapata cousins have a more pressing issue closer to home.
A Spanish thermoelectricity conglomerate has set up a plant on the outskirts of Anenecuilco, polluting the groundwater the local farmers use.
The Zapatas held a sit-in protest on the site of the plant’s intended pipeline route and continue to obstruct the facility’s activities.
“Mexico has everything we need: food, water, petrol, minerals, wildlife, the best beaches, but the government has sold everything to the highest-bidding foreigner,” Jorge told FNL. “The only remaining industry that isn’t either monopolized or nationalized is drugs – and yet they wonder how the cartels attract so many young Mexican men from impoverished backgrounds.”
He went on, “I see a very bleak future for Mexico, and we have to put an end to this before the situation becomes irreversible. If those in government don’t want to listen to the public, then they must live with the consequences – and if it comes to armed conflict, we are ready.”
How truly prepared the cousins are for armed conflict, or how sturdy the support is that they can muster across Mexico is unclear, yet the grandsons' conviction in the legacy of their iconic, machete-wielding ancestor is unshakeable.
“Our grandfather gave up a comfortable life in order to fight for the rights of others, and we are willing to do the same,” Jorge vowed. “We were born with this – the obligation is in our blood.”
Alasdair Baverstock is a freelance writer based in Mexico.